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The Idea of the Senate

James Bryce, 1888
Photo of James Bryce

In the late 19th century, a diminutive, red-bearded, pipe-smoking Scotsman named James Bryce repeatedly traveled to the United States. A British law professor and member of the House of Commons, Bryce wanted to study American political institutions. At a time when many of his countrymen were growing distrustful over the increasingly muscular United States, Bryce believed the two nations had more to gain from their common traditions and goals than from their mutual suspicions. The result of his studies was his classic work, The American Commonwealth. Bryce devoted 12 of its 52 chapters to Congress, and three of those exclusively to the Senate.

Widely known to American readers through his regular articles on British politics and history in the Nation magazine, and for his advocacy of British parliamentary reform, the Oxford University law professor had recently become a Liberal Party member of the British House of Commons. During his American tour, Bryce visited the newly established Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. There he developed an enduring friendship with Professor Herbert Baxter Adams, the young historian who influenced many students, including three who would go on to write significant works about the U.S. Senate—Woodrow Wilson, Lindsay Rogers, and George Haynes.

In December 1881, at the start of the 47th Congress, Bryce took a break from lecturing at Harvard University to visit the nation’s capital. Desiring to explore American political institutions at close range, he arranged an appointment at the White House with recently installed president Chester Arthur. With his gift for incisive observation, Bryce described Arthur as “a rather shrewd, easy going, fat faced, pleasant man of the world, with nothing in the least remarkable about him.” His brief encounter with the chief executive strengthened Bryce’s opinion that Congress would continue its post-Civil War domination of the presidency. On Capitol Hill, eager to explore the practical operation of Congress, Bryce interviewed leading senators as if he were an anthropologist on a field trip.

Two years later, he returned to the United States with a firm plan to write the book that would appear in 1888 as The American Commonwealth. His 1883-1884 visit proved to be his most formative. He later explained, “When I first visited America [in 1870], I brought home a swarm of bold generalizations. Half of them were thrown overboard after a second visit in 1881. Of the half that remained, some were dropped into the Atlantic when I returned across it after a third visit in 1883-84.”1 In contrast to the French political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville, who had visited the U.S. a half-century earlier, Bryce considered himself a reporter or chronicler. He disapproved of Tocqueville’s unscientific moralizing. Bryce set out simply to “paint the institutions and people of America as they are,”2 allowing his readers to draw their own conclusions without any prodding from him.

In 1883 Herbert Baxter Adams invited Bryce to lecture on Tocqueville’s Democracy in America at his prestigious graduate history seminar at Johns Hopkins. One of the students in that seminar was Woodrow Wilson. That forum’s intense discussions helped both Bryce and Wilson frame views of Congress that would soon appear, respectively, in The American Commonwealth and Congressional Government. After the concluding lecture, Wilson shared his opinion of Bryce with his fiancée. “I have enjoyed the course exceedingly. There are a strength and dash and mastery about the man which are captivating. He knows what to say and how to say it.”

The astute British observer greatly admired the U.S. Senate as a source of government stability—a “center of gravity” he called it—and hoped that British reformers would take its best features as their model in improving operations in the House of Lords. An excerpt from Bryce’s Senate section of The American Commonwealth goes as follows...

The American Commonwealth

The Americans consider the Senate one of the successes of their Constitution, a worthy monument of the wisdom and foresight of its founders. . . .

The aims with which the Senate was created, the purposes it was to fulfill . . . were the five following:

To conciliate the spirit of independence in the several States, by giving each, however small, equal representation with every other, however large, in one branch of the national government.

To create a council qualified, by its moderate size and the experience of its members, to advise and check the President in the exercise of his powers of appointing to office and concluding treaties.

To restrain the impetuosity and fickleness of the popular House, and so guard against the effects of gusts of passion or sudden changes of opinion in the people.

To provide a body of men whose greater experience, longer term of membership, and comparative independence of popular election, would make them an element of stability in the government of the nation, enabling it to maintain its character in the eyes of foreign States, and to preserve a continuity of policy at home and abroad.

To establish a Court proper for the trial of impeachments, a remedy deemed necessary to prevent abuse of power by the executive.

All of these five objects have been more or less perfectly attained; and the Senate has acquired a position in the government of the nation which [Alexander] Hamilton scarcely ventured to hope for. . . .

It may be doubted whether the Senate has excelled the House in attachment to the public good; but it has certainly shown greater capacity for managing the public business, and has won the respect, if not the affections, of the people by its sustained intellectual power. . . .

. . . No one in the Convention of 1787 set out with the idea of such a Senate as ultimately emerged from their deliberations. It grew up under the hands of the Convention, as the result of the necessity for reconciling the conflicting demands of the large and small States. The concession of equal representation in the Senate induced the small States to accept the principle of representation according to population in the House of Representatives; and a series of compromises between the advocates of popular power, as embodied in the House, and those of monarchical power, as embodied in the President, led to the allotment of attributes and functions which have made the Senate what it is. When the work which they had almost unconsciously perfected was finished, the leaders of the Convention perceived its excellence, and defended it by arguments in which we feel the note of sincere conviction. Yet the conception they formed of it differed from the reality which has been evolved. Although they had created it as a branch of the legislature, they thought of it as being first and foremost a body with executive functions. . . . And as respects these executive functions it stands alone in the world. No European state, no British colony, entrusts to an elective assembly that direct participation in executive business which the Senate enjoys.3

Bryce and Wilson examined American political institutions at a time of intense renewed interest in the men who drafted the U.S. Constitution. As the centennial of that document’s signing approached in 1887, popular historians produced books exalting its genius. In this spirit, Bryce’s political mentor, British Prime Minister William Gladstone, described the American Constitution as “the most wonderful work ever struck off at a given time by the brain and purpose of man.”

Bryce cited relations between the Senate and president over executive and judicial appointments as an example of the Senate’s stabilizing role. “When the majority belongs to the same party as the President, appointments are usually arranged . . . between them, with a view primarily to party interests. When the majority is opposed to the President, they are tempted to agree to his worst appointments, because such appointments discredit him and his party with the country, and become a theme of hostile comment in the next electioneering campaign.” Bryce continued, “As the initiative is his, it is the nominating President, and not the confirming Senate, whom public opinion will condemn.”4

With many of the Constitution’s framers, Bryce viewed the upper house as a defensive institution. He believed that the Senate of the 1880s had “achieved less in the way of positive work, whether of initiating good legislation or improving the measures which the House sends it. But the whole scheme of the American Constitution tends to put stability above activity, to sacrifice the productive energies of the bodies it creates to their power of resisting changes in the general fabric of the government.” Bryce concluded, “The Senate has succeeded in making itself eminent and respected. It has drawn the best talent of the nation, so far as that talent flows to politics, into its body, has established an intellectual supremacy, has furnished a vantage ground from which men of ability may speak with authority to their fellow-citizens.”5

The Senate enhanced governmental stability, in his view, through its members’ longer terms, indirect election, and shared executive powers to provide advice and consent on treaties and nominations. The Senate also promoted stability through the continuity of its membership, with only a third of its seats subject to election every two years. Bryce compared the body’s “unceasing process of gradual change and renewal” to that of “a lake into which streams bring fresh water to replace that which the issuing river carries out,” allowing new senators, always few in number, to be readily assimilated. He continued, “This provision was designed to give the Senate that permanency of composition which might qualify it to conduct or control the foreign policy of the nation. An incidental and more valuable result has been the creation of a set of traditions and a corporate spirit which have tended to form habits of dignity and self-respect.”6

Further Reading:

Ions, Edmund. James Bryce and American Democracy, 1870-1922. New York: Humanities Press, 1970.

McDowell, Gary L. “Introduction.” In The American Commonwealth, by James Bryce. 2 vols. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund Books, 1995. (The Online Library of Liberty, introduction updated April 19, 2004.)

Tulloch, Hugh. James Bryce’s American Commonwealth: The Anglo-American Background. Suffolk, England: The Boydell Press, 1988.

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1. Ibid., 1:4.
2. Ibid.
3. James Bryce, The American Commonwealth (London: Macmillan and Co., 1888), 1:108-110.
4. Ibid, 1:106
5. Ibid, 1:111
6. Ibid, 1:99